Car buyers in Latin America demand better safety
Latin America is home to some of the largest, fastest growing and most profitable car markets in the world. For years, buyers in places like Brazil have been sold vehicles with inadequate safety structures and no airbags. With 130,000 people killed and six million injured on its roads every year, Latin America suffers terribly as a consequence.
With Latin NCAP crash testing new cars, consumers’ safety concerns have been given a voice for the first time. Governments and carmakers are realising that change is overdue and that the car safety movement is gathering momentum. Alejandro Furas, Technical Director for Latin NCAP, is one of the people working behind the scenes to give consumers the information they need to make the kind of informed decisions that drive progress. Car Safety Rules spoke to him about the situation:
How far behind other parts of the world is Latin America on safety?
The big difference between Latin America and other parts of the world is that we have no regulations that govern a car’s performance in a crash test. We need governments to set minimum legal standards. Argentina and Brazil are starting to introduce some but there is still a lot that regulations need to cover.
There’s a lot of work to be done just to catch up with Europe before Euro NCAP launched 16 years ago. Back then, Europe already had the ECE 94/95 regulations and even a one-star car had to offer some level of crash protection. In Latin America we have cars with no airbags and poor structural performance.
Latin America is challenging for many reasons. The cars are similar to those in Europe, but specifications vary in the different markets, mainly depending on whether it’s a Pacific or Atlantic market.
How happy are you with progress so far with Latin NCAP?
We’ve made good progress, but it’s still really just a pilot scheme. We welcome the improvements so far from manufacturers. A number are responding positively to our tests. We prompted Ford and VW to each make equipment changes to models. We now also have a B-segment car on sale in Latin America that’s competitively priced and offers good adult safety: the Toyota Etios. And, with the Ford Fiesta and the Honda City, we have our first cars with four-star child safety.
All good, but at least half a million one-star machines come onto the road every year in Latin America. There are big issues with these cars’ structures, not just their safety equipment. Fundamental changes were needed at the start of their development.
Are these older vehicle platforms that are being kept on the road for far too long?
We have one-star cars that have been in production for a long time, using 25-year old platforms. Some bring European platforms from the early 1990s and then assemble them in slightly different ways using different materials. And we also have one-star cars fully developed just a few years ago with similar flaws and poor structures.
What have you learned from the process so far?
We’ve learned how to use the star rating. We changed the protocols in January, making it harder to get five stars.
Five-star cars have to prove that they also protect in the standard ECE 95 side-impact test. And they also have to fit four-channel ABS and seatbelt reminders in the front. In three years’ time all cars will undergo side impact assessments in a test similar to the one used by Euro NCAP.
[Note: Four-channel ABS controls all four wheels independently to improve safety in emergency braking. Some cars have three-channel systems that control the two front brakes independently and the rear two together. The worst have just two channels, front and back. If you’re braking hard to avoid a crash and a wheel locks, the system reduces brake pressure on both. Scary]
In Latin America we have cars with no airbags and poor structural performance. There’s a lot of work to be done just to catch up with Europe before Euro NCAP launched 16 years ago.
How are the results being received by the public and by manufacturers?
Consumers in Latin America are very supportive of what Latin NCAP is doing. Most were not surprised by the results of our testing and they want to know where the government regulations are. It’s been quite easy for us to get the support of consumers.
They are asking about safety more, asking to see the results of the Latin NCAP test: they’re not satisfied being shown results from Euro NCAP, China NCAP or the US. They know their cars are built differently.
Manufacturers have started to sponsor vehicles’ testing. In some cases, they are doing this just to show that they produce a different car with a better safety performance than the one we selected. We were expecting manufacturers to offer to sponsor vehicles sooner, but it’s now happening.
Does safety sell cars in Latin America? Some buyers no doubt just want a mode of transport.
Carmakers sometimes try to tell us safety doesn’t sell cars. It’s nonsense. Often it’s the pricing strategy that makes safety a hard sell. You can’t expect consumers to pay what is sometimes a 30% premium on a $15,000 car for basic safety equipment, bundled in with a few luxury options. We know that an airbag module is no more than US$50-60 per module. And in some cases consumers are being asked to pay more than $2,000 for it.
This will change. In Brazil next year, regulations will require cars to fit double airbags, ABS and pass a crash performance test. Carmakers are now offering all these extras at very competitive prices. Consumers notice the difference between a car with and without safety equipment.
Consumers in Latin America are very supportive of what Latin NCAP is doing. They are asking about safety more, asking to see the results of the Latin NCAP test. They know their cars are built differently
How much attention is paid to safety for child in cars?
Child safety is still in a very poor stage of development and it definitely needs to be improved in Latin America. The child seat market is unregulated with importers switching models quickly if they can get a better price. We’ve seen carmakers struggle to recommend a child seat for our tests, very poor seatbelts in the rear, incompatible rear seats and poor fitment instructions.
For car manufacturers planning a new car for Latin America in 2017-22, what do they need to plan to fit? Electronic stability control must be high on your wish-list.
In Latin America, ESC is yet to be discussed. Most cars don’t even have ABS yet. And even where regulations now require ABS to be fitted, we’re seeing cars launched with just two-channel systems. Senseless.
Four-channel ABS costs little and brings a huge increase in safety for people. In the next stage in 2015 we’ll make ESC a requirement for five stars and will later assess ESC fitment for all vehicles.
We’ll then slowly start introducing other tests, the latest that have been introduced by Euro NCAP. It’s mainly side impact testing, but also pedestrian and pole impact. Probably in that order.
How much accident research data is available to help you inform these decisions?
We get data from some cities, but not across the entire region. Governments are developing road safety agencies and slowly gathering this information. In three years they will have solid data, just in time for our next change in protocols.
We recently undertook a consultation with governments, asking them which tests they’d like us to include. They had the chance to offer proof and opinions. We’re still consulting closely on this and hope it will provide some kind of direction for the future.
In Europe we hear a lot of talk about the business opportunities for global companies in emerging markets. We’re led to believe that companies succeed by providing higher-quality products and in return we get lots of cheaper, sometimes slightly dodgy, goods.
The truth is that it’s some of most trusted car companies selling Latin America one-star cars. These are often so poorly made they could not be sold in other parts of the world.
It’s interesting how righteous we feel in condemning Chinese companies when they cut corners on safety, how forgiving we are when our favourite car brands do the same.
Latin NCAP’s crash tests are exposing the models that don’t take their customers’ safety seriously. The organisation is just getting started but already consumers and governments are starting to mobilise. It’s an enormous, ambitious project and I hope we won’t wait long to see change